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Men’s Basketball

Irish fall in primetime thriller against North Carolina

| Friday, February 24, 2023

At this point, it feels like Notre Dame men’s basketball games are following a script. Two weeks ago, the Irish went stride for stride with Georgia Tech all game before faltering in the final seconds. Then the same story played out against Virginia Tech, Duke and Virginia.

After a 63-59 defeat at the hands of North Carolina Wednesday night, Notre Dame has now lost five consecutive games by six points or fewer. In his final season, Irish head coach Mike Brey understands how frustrated his team is. They have been competitive in nearly every conference game they have played. But the results do not show it. Wednesday’s loss in Purcell Pavilion dropped them to a disappointing 2-15 in ACC play.

“I feel for our guys, because we keep getting in position, but we can’t finish,” Brey said after the game. “We put ourselves in position, but [losing close games] has kind of been the recipe.”

For much of the first half, though, it did not look like they would even get in position to have a chance at winning. Notre Dame did not score for nearly six minutes to open the game. Luckily for the Irish, North Carolina could not take advantage of that scoring drought and led just 4-0 when the Irish finally woke up.

Coming off the bench, graduate student guard Trey Wertz sank a three-pointer to get the Irish on the board. Wertz and graduate student guard Cormac Ryan combined to score the first 10 points for the Irish. North Carolina’s RJ Davis converted a pair of free throws to stretch the Tar Heels’ advantage to 15-10 with just over eight minutes left in the half. But that was followed by one of the best extended stretches of basketball Notre Dame has played all season.

Graduate student guards Marcus Hammond, Dane Goodwin and Wertz connected on three straight three-pointers. Hammond converted a tough step-back jump shot to extend the Notre Dame run to 11-0. Suddenly, the Irish held a six-point lead. They would continue to play well in the closing minutes of the half and went into the break leading 27-19. It was the best outcome they could have hoped for after being held scoreless for over a quarter of the half.

While the Irish came on strong at the end of the half, poor execution from North Carolina played a significant role in Notre Dame’s halftime advantage. The Tar Heels shot just 5-27 on field goals and 0-11 on three-point attempts in the first half.

Beyond their dismal shooting effort, North Carolina head coach Hubert Davis said after the game that the team’s three keys to winning are defending, rebounding and taking care of the ball. The Tar Heels did not accomplish any of those goals in the first half but got back on track in the second.

However, North Carolina would hold Notre Dame to just 32 points after halftime. The Irish shot 50% from the field in the half but made just four free throws and two three-pointers. After recording no assists and eight turnovers in the first half, the Tar Heels finished with eight assists and just one turnover in the second. They were also dominant on the glass after halftime, racking up 16 offensive rebounds and seemingly scoring second-chance points after every missed shot.

Notre Dame saw their lead slip away less than four minutes into the half but would regain it several times, as the margin remained within one possession up until the final seconds. The Irish got a boost from freshman guard JJ Starling, who tallied 10 points in the second half after being shutout in the opening 20 minutes.

“I thought he really responded well,” Brey said of Starling’s play after a quiet first half. “I give him a lot of credit because he’s really hung in there. He gave us a lift and got us going.”

Starling’s increased usage came after an injury to Hammond, who led the Irish in first-half scoring with nine points. Brey said after the game that Hammond sprained his toe and is expected to miss Notre Dame’s next game.

With less than four minutes to play, Notre Dame continued to stifle North Carolina defensively. But the Irish simply could not keep the Tar Heels off the glass. North Carolina’s Armando Bacot, Pete Nance and Leaky Black combined for 17 offensive rebounds in the game. And the Tar Heels scored crucial second-chance points on three consecutive possessions in the final minutes in large part because of their efforts.

Starling made a tough layup to cut the deficit to just one at 59-58 with under a minute to play. Notre Dame was in dire need of a stop. They actually got two, but a pair of North Carolina offensive rebounds forced the Irish to foul in order to stop the clock. Four made free throws later, and North Carolina left South Bend as 63-59 victors despite finishing the game 2-23 (8.7%) from beyond the arc.

Brey spoke about how the Irish rebounding woes caused their defensive efforts to go unrewarded.

“I thought we defended fabulously. They’re going to get to the backboard because they’re athletic as heck,” Brey said about North Carolina’s 23 offensive rebounds. “That’s hurt us at times, not only in this game. Being able to get that key defensive rebound when four athletes on the other team are going to the backboard, we just haven’t been able to do it.”

Despite the growing total of disappointing results, he praised his team’s ability to stay focused and continue to push heavily-favored opponents to the limit.

“This has been a hard year, but they come in and keep competing. I give our seniors credit that they’re coming in [with the mentality of], ‘We’re going to do this again,’” Brey said. “The old guys keep coming ready to go, and our young guys, I thought, really competed tonight.”

With just three games remaining in the regular season, Notre Dame will play at Wake Forest on Saturday. The Irish have a score to settle after the Deacons used a huge second half to roll past Notre Dame 81-64 when the teams met in South Bend. Wake Forest was led in that game by Damari Monsanto, who made eight three-pointers and scored 28 points. Brey has clearly not forgotten that outburst, calling his performance in that game “unbelievable” and joking that he “still hasn’t missed” a shot.

Notre Dame has come up short in crunch time in five straight games. But all it takes is one clutch moment to get a big win and gain momentum before the ACC Tournament. Brey has no doubt that the Irish will remain as confident and focused as ever against the Deacons.

“Let’s go to Winston-Salem and get in position again,” Brey said about his message to the team. “Maybe I can help you better, and maybe we can get over the hump.”

Notre Dame will play at Wake Forest on Saturday night. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. on ACC Network.

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